Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Masochist: Inside Out

Howard Jacobson
The Act of Love
Penguin Canada, 2009
Softcover, 308 pages

Well, here is a peculiar situation. I have just read a book I didn’t much like, one that left me with somewhat ambivalent feelings about the man who wrote it. But that book has also tempted me to read more works by the same author: I’m fairly sure I’ll like his others better.

The Act of Love is the tenth novel and 14th book by British writer and academic Howard Jacobson. My interest was piqued by an interview I read last fall with Jacobson about the book, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard of him before. He is an award-winning author whose 2006 novel Kalooki Nights was long-listed for the Man Booker prize, and he’s a regular contributor of opinion pieces to major British newspapers. According to Wikipedia, his propensity for creating fictional doppelgangers of himself and for writing comic novels involving Jews have earned him comparisons to Philip Roth.

The protagonist of The Act of Love is the singularly unsympathetic owner of an antiquarian bookshop in the Marylebone district of London by the name of Felix Quinn. Felix has come to believe that the search for pain is fundamental to human nature, deriving his evidence primarily (and at some times more convincingly than others) from the literary and visual arts. He also believes that of all human activity, love offers the most opportunity for pain, and he sets out to explore his own masochistic tendencies by turning himself into a cuckold. In the depths of misery, jealousy and humiliation he is certain he will find fulfillment.

"No man has ever loved a woman," he insists, "and not imagined her in the arms of someone else…. No man is ever happy—truly genitally happy, happy at the very heart of himself as a husband—until he has proof positive that another man is f***ing her.” [asterisks mine]

Previously unlucky in love, Felix has managed to win the sophisticated, aloof and beautiful Marisa away from her first husband—partly thanks (he says) to his exceptional ability to carry on an intelligent discussion, and partly because he knows the location of the neighbourhood’s best restaurants. Marisa is so lovely and so self-possessed that one would think that the very fact of being in love with her would in and of itself have been enough to bring Felix to his knees in exquisite agony. However, he discovers that the usual piquancies of married life will not be enough for him when, during their honeymoon in Cuba, Marisa falls ill and is attended by a physician who touches her breasts in Felix’s presence as part of the examination. This sets Felix off on his marital mission (or obsession)—one that eclipses all of his other interests—which is to secure the perfect lover for his wife.

After a few false starts, during which Felix leaves the selection of the lovers to Marisa, he decides that a man named Marius, whom he has previously met at a funeral in Shropshire and who has now come to live in Marylebone, will be the ideal instrument to assist in his own betrayal.

“He was handsome, if you find high and hawkish men handsome. As a non-predatory man myself, I felt intimidated by him. But that’s part of what being handsome means, isn’t it: instilling fear.”

Felix is no voyeur: he has no interest in actually seeing his wife physically engage in the act of love with another man; rather he gains his pleasure (or at least the pain that masochists define as pleasure) first by imagining and later by hearing Marisa relate the intimate details of her passionate afternoons with Marius.

“I ceded preference to Marius. I liked following him. It satisfied my sulphurous desire to be demeaned, the last in a line of obscene pursuit—Marisa laying down her scent, Marius tracking her, and I trailing in the rear of them both, like a wounded dog.”

How charming.

The perambulations Felix must go through to bring this relationship to fruition (according to the rules he has invented for his game, Marius and Marisa must fall for one another of their own accord) would surely be enough to discourage most mortals, even the obsessive ones. But Felix takes as much pleasure from the challenges of accomplishing his mission as he does in its achievement.

As his scheme gradually unfolds, Felix regales us with a list of his literary and artistic predecessors—which includes not only those with clearly masochistic perspectives, such as Georges Bataille, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the artist Pierre Klossowski, but also the less obviously complicit—Vladimir Nabakov, James Joyce, George Eliot and Charles Dickens to name a few. Felix even argues at some length and with a fair degree of success that Shakespeare’s Othello was driven by a lust similar to his own (‘“I had been happy if the general camp had tasted [Desdemona’s] sweet body,’ Othello says”). And yet we feel that the most appropriate fictional counterpart to Felix’s efforts to deploy Marisa and Marius in the fulfillment of his twisted fantasies can be found in Dr. Hannibal Lecter (to whom he also refers)—for his erudition as well as his cruelty. Felix Quinn is so intelligent and sly, and so manipulative, that we suspect that he may even be aware that he is a literary invention himself, and be looking forward to assuming a position of prominence among the great sexual masochists of world fiction.

Felix is a highly unreliable narrator. He keeps readers on our guard, constantly forcing us to step back from the tale to assess whether the information he conveys to us is something he could actually know or not. By the end of the novel we are so uncertain of our footing that if Felix were to tell us that the entire affair he has so carefully engineered between Marisa and Marius had been a fabrication (and indeed, he does hint that this may be the case), we would not doubt him for a moment.

Well, at least not at first. Later, maybe we would. Later still, maybe not again.

As uncertain as we may be about the reliability of the stories Felix tells us, The Act of Love is a novel, not a reality show, and we never feel (as we might with a newer or less talented writer) as though our ambivalence been achieved with anything less than deliberate manipulation on the part of the author. Furthermore, as unpleasant as Felix is, Jacobson has created a highly sympathetic character in Marisa: beyond her beauty, aloofness and betrayal of her husband is an obviously kind and conscientious person, a woman who protects those she loves even from her own pain. It is not easy to create a sympathetic character through the eyes of an unsympathetic one: it takes talent to do that.

The scope of the philosophical deliberations into which Jacobson invites us are also tantalizing. Among the moral issues we consider as we read The Act of Love is whether Marisa’s willing participation in the betrayal makes Felix less of a scoundrel for having engineered it. Further, we wonder whether Felix should still be defined as a masochist if he has facilitated the affair…does he not thereby become a sadist? Finally we ask ourselves whether Marisa’s relating the details of her dalliances in Felix’s ear, because she knows it gives him pleasure, does not transform her betrayal into its own act of love.

The questions and issues Jacobson raises are intriguing on artistic as well as ethical levels. At one point, Felix asks us to consider whether some of the great novelists have not been masochists. He compares himself, for example, with Thomas Hardy who first creates the lovely, trusting, innocent Tess—and then defiles and destroys her.

Ultimately, the formality of Felix’s prose and his endless self-analysis create such a distance between him and the reader that we feel no empathy or even sympathy for him, nor do we experience any satisfaction when he is finally discovered and handed his just desserts. But Jacobson is a writer of no small talent and interest. His narrator is very funny when he’s not being repulsive, and there is a way in which this entire novel can be read as a black comedy -- a twisted mockery of romance.

And so, although in the end I wasn’t all that keen on The Act of Love, I'm glad I read it. Next I think I’ll try Kalooki Nights.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Abandon hope

Richard Yates
Revolutionary Road
Vintage Contemporaries, 2008 (original copyright 1961)
Softcover, 355 pages

The back cover of the 2008 edition of Revolutionary Road features a blurb by Kurt Vonnegut, in which he declares the novel to be “The Great Gatsby of [Vonnegut's] time.”

Unfortunately for readers of Yates’s book, the mid-Fifties did not hold a candle to the Roaring Twenties in terms of the pleasures that accrued to the voyeur. At least in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel the excesses and hare-brained escapades of Daisy and Tom Buchanan, not to mention Jay Gatsby himself, gave us some relief from the necessary consideration of the emptiness of their lives.

In Revolutionary Road, by contrast, the lives of the protagonists amount to an unrelieved stretch of monochromatic dullness from the first page to the last. Their story made me wonder (not for the first time) how partners in any marriage ever manage to raise a family, socialize with other couples, remain faithful to one another, stay employed for long enough to secure their pensions, and grow into states of gracious elderhood without flinging themselves from high places in the face of the absolutely devastating boredom that must distinguish at least 90 percent of their waking hours.

Not that this observation is without merit, of course: life can be deadly dull, predictable and mundane, even (or perhaps especially) for the truly gifted and extraordinary. Just as, even for those who expect nothing, it can have moments of high drama, excitement, satisfaction and even joy. In all lives there is a blend, and that Richard Yates chose to present the horrors of ennui nearly undiluted brings me up against the morality not so much of his characters or his novel, but of him.

In brief (as many of you will know from the movie, which I have not yet seen), Revolutionary Road is the story of a young couple—April and Frank Wheeler—who launch their marriage under the delusion that they are vastly superior intellectually and in every other way to their contemporaries. She is an actress in the making, he is languishing almost ironically in a dead-end job with a company that once employed his father—which must mean, by his own definition, that it is far beneath his dignity. The Wheelers view their newlywed circumstances as temporary: when their gifts are recognized by a grateful world, they will soar free of all things mundane and live rich and interesting lives. Never for them the tedium of “the American dream,” which they superciliously envision as a home in the suburbs and a pair of children.

But then April and Frank conceive a child, and before they know it they are beginning to resemble that couple they have always despised. They even have a boy after the girl: how much more American-dreamlike can it get? The inevitable next step in the erosion of their vision is the purchase of a house in Connecticut in which to raise their children. The name of the street encapsulates the desperate bleakness of their lives, and forms the title of the novel.

Frank and April manage to sustain their illusions for a little while longer after moving to Connecticut by attaching themselves to Shep and Milly Campbell, fellow residents of their new neighbourhood—who (for the sake of the friendship, one suspects, and not out of any real conviction) are willing to go along with the conceit that they are all meant for better things. The two couples spend their evenings and weekends drinking together and dissing the other residents in their community. But when they put on a little-theatre play which turns out to be so bad that people start leaving at the intermission, reality begins to insinuate itself—first between the Campbells and the Wheelers, and then between Frank and April.

Once they begin to realize that they are no different (read "better") than any other couple, the only recourse that remains to the Wheelers (aside from facing the truth) is for each of them to believe that as individuals they must be superior to the other. That new conviction seals their fate, causing both of them to start making decisions that have nothing to do with preserving their marriage. (Preserving the larger family seems a non-issue: throughout the novel: the Wheeler children are almost irrelevant. They appear onstage from time to time as needed, but Yates makes no effort to engage our sympathy for them. “From a distance, all children’s voices sound the same,” April observes coolly at one point.)

Before they are through (and when they are through they are truly and utterly done) both Frank and April manage to debase themselves and to betray not only their marriage but their friendships and their pasts.

I cannot think of another book I have read whose setting, characters and plot were so completely, almost terrifyingly, depressing—and that includes Under The Volcano and The Road. At Grand Central Station at the end of his commute one morning, Frank looks around himself , contrasting his life (which has suddenly and temporarily been brightened and energized by an utterly unrealistic and foredoomed plan that he and April have hatched to escape it) to those of the others he sees around him:
How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their gray-flecked crew cuts and their button-down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet. There were endless desperate swarms of them hurrying through the station and the streets, and an hour from now they would all be still. The waiting midtown office buildings would swallow them up and contain them, so that to stand in one tower looking out across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great silent insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds.
Many years ago I read On Moral Fiction by John Gardner, in which he argued that the writer has an ethical responsibility to push away the chaos that distinguishes so much of human life. Revolutionary Road fails to meet one basic requirement I have since developed as part of my own literary theory, which is that major characters who are doomed must at least be given a way out—and given at least an option to accept it or decline it. April and Frank have been given none. Their fate is sealed by the world in which they live, and they are not bright or imaginative enough to save themselves from it.

My reaction to Revolutionary Road may sound to some as unaware and witless as telling Phillip Larkin to “cheer up.” They may see this novel as a contribution to the “slice of life” variety of literature, and be satisfied with that. Not me. Yates's writing (unlike Larkin’s) is not of a calibre to lift the story above the mundane world that it describes, nor does the novel provide the reader with any perspective or at least wry wariness that might serve as a tool for addressing his or her own reality.

Long after I finished reading the desperate tale of Frank and April Wheeler, I continued to ask myself whether the stultifying and horrible dilemma in which this couple found itself (which is, keep in mind, no more or less than the reality of many marriages) even merited the attention of a novel. I do not believe it did.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2009 Mary W. Walters

Friday, January 16, 2009

Laughing all the way to the end

Don DeLillo
White Noise
Penguin Books, 1986
Softcover, 326 pages

Recent comments about White Noise (first published in 1984) have pointed out Don DeLillo’s prescience in relation to the acts of terrorism and environmental disaster—even school shootings--that have riddled American history in the interim. I contend that if you try to list every possible potential cause of death and you have a great imagination, you are certain to sound as though you can predict the future. As they say, even clocks that have stopped ticking are accurate twice every day.

Not that DeLillo should be in any way compared to a stopped clock. If anything, the writing in this novel can best be described as “timeless,” dealing as it does with the ultimate ironic quandary of all thinking humans—i.e., how our awareness of our own mortality can overwhelm our attempts to fully be alive.

A friend of mine bought White Noise for me in 1987 and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I felt no reluctance to read it—I always thought I would. I just didn’t get around to it till now. (I have quite a few books like that: fortunately for my relationship with her, the same friend didn’t give all of them to me.)

When I finally did start to read DeLillo’s eighth novel (he’s published six more since), I regretted that I had left the pleasure so long—but it is hard to stay regretful when you are enjoying yourself so much. DeLillo is a wonderfully funny writer and several times I had to stop reading White Noise on the bus because I was afraid my bursts of laughter might irritate (or alarm) my fellow travelers. But he is also insightful and compassionate, and his deep love for the characters he has created—quirky though they all are—is one of the great strengths of this novel.

Jack Gladney, the novel's protagonist, is a professor who has cleverly created a scholarly niche for himself by establishing the first Hitler-studies program at a U.S. university. Jack is also the custodial parent of three offspring from his previous four marriages (which included two to the same woman). He and his fifth wife, Babette, are raising these three and two of hers, and all of the children, like Jack and Babette themselves, are masterful fictional creations. I grew particularly fond of Heinrich, Jack’s 14-year-old son, who in typical fashion for his age defeats every opinion his father ventures with his deadly adolescent capacity for fact-retention.

The long-suffering Babette (“tall and fairly ample. There is a heft and girth to her”) stoically trudges through her days, mothering the children, looking after Jack, trying to tame her figure by running up and down stadium steps every morning, and teaching old people how to keep their balance. (Which occasions one of my many many favourite one-liners in this novel: “We seem to believe we can ward off death by following the rules of good grooming.”)

Babette is being watched very closely by her daughter, Denise, who believes her mother is popping mood-altering pills. The girl nags Jack into investigating what Babette might be taking, which leads him first to attempts to get some of the drug for himself, and then to examine her relationship with her "pusher"— adding another whole dimension to this intriguing plot.

First and foremost, this book is about death and all the subtle ways it can sneak up on us: Jack and Babette are both obsessed with mortality in general, and specifically with which of them will die first. But the novel is also about the white noise of the title. The tv and radio are always on, always providing a backdrop to the routine of the Gladney family—from the drama of breaking news to the inanity of commercials. Those same media focus the family’s alarmed attention during the central event of the novel—which is the accumulation of a black cloud of deadly chemicals over Iron City following a train accident. In that pre-Internet era, the citizens of Iron City are evacuated to makeshift accommodations just outside of town with little real sense of what is happening to them, how serious the risk may be, or how far the the danger extends.

During the crisis, Jack is exposed briefly to the vapours from the poisonous cloud: the potential effects on his health seem to be largely unknown but are much theorized, and everyone in authority seems to agree that at some point in his life, Jack is going to die. His new mortality may differ very little in actual substance from his mortality before the toxic exposure, but his fears of death are mightily compounded--and that makes a big difference.

There are so many quotable quotes in this book that there was no point in copying them all down. I’m sure it is more pleasurable anyway to simply re-read the novel every couple of years and let those brilliant thoughts, observations, and witty lines rise up toward you and surprise you once again.

However, I did find one entire passage near the end of the book so delightful—and so typical of the wry knowledge and humour that distinguishes White Noise, that I reproduce it here in part. It is spoken by a nun who, Jack Gladney discovers, does not believe in God. In response to Jack’s amazement that members of religious orders may not be believers, she says,
Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.
It is no wonder White Noise was recently named one of the top works of fiction of the past 25 years in a poll by the New York Times. It is powerful, brilliant and courageous—not to mention funny as hell.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters